Proposed inclusion in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) stigmatizes billions of players worldwide, is based on little scholarly evidence, and proposes no treatment or prevention

WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 4, 2018 – It is with great dismay that during the holiday season we read about the proposal at the World Health Organization (WHO) to enact a new classification for a ‘gaming disorder’ in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD). Already, some of the popular press is reporting the proposed addition to the list of ‘mental diseases’, ‘mental health conditions’, and other similar phrasing and terminology. While WHO is careful to point out that the proposal is limited in characterizing the disorder as “recurrent” gaming behavior manifested by “impaired control over gaming,” and “escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences”, it is nonetheless the case that an additional classification of gaming as an addictive disorder will do little to combat cases of abuse rooted in individual behavior, not symptomatic of a particular medium. Of particular concern is that classifying gaming as a disorder will broadly seek to stigmatize a pastime that billions of players enjoy without issue around the world, and will also warp continued research into the issue in ways that seek to confirm classification rather than allow for open and transparent research without bias. We do not support WHO in this classification scheme in the strongest possible terms.

While we strongly support the notion of responsible design, community engagement, and engaged citizenship on behalf of both the games community, the game development industry, and the scholarly and academic community studying both these media forms and their effects, we find very little scholarly evidence to support the classification as proposed. Instead, this effort seeks to create a distinction between engagement with this form of media and all other consumption where one may not exist (e.g., binge watching and other consumption patterns). Moreover, it confuses the context and terminology between ‘gaming’, which commonly refers to gambling, and the playing of digital video games. Perhaps most importantly, this classification proposes no prevention or treatment options.

We’ve seen this kind of scapegoating before with both games and other media forms for centuries. Prior to digital games, we saw similar claims made of chess, solitaire, pen-and-paper role-playing games, and other forms of media, entertainment, and broadcasting. In the 18th and 19th centuries, women were seen as incapable of distinguishing the fiction of novels from everyday life in attempts to maintain the status quo and gender inequities, much in the same way various demographics and market segments are today cast as microcosms of other hot topic societal ills. We’ve watched as games are repeatedly blamed in today’s world for violence, childhood obesity, failures in educational policy, and a host of other contemporary issues, despite both a lack of evidence and careful consideration of other, often far more powerful, systemic forces that contribute to societal behavior. Games are commonly referred to as ‘addictive’ despite numerous conflicting studies and a clear lack of consensus from the scientific and medical communities. Yet certain groups, and some of the press, seem intent on singling out this form of media and play as uniquely dangerous, regardless of the fact that games are enjoyed by over 2 billion gamers worldwide and have also had a positive effect on STEM education, as well as related fields in the humanities and social sciences.

To be sure, a classification may help with insurance and naming done properly can be of significant benefit, but instead of jumping to premature conclusions in ways that may be potentially damaging and could further alienate disparate parts of our societies, we first encourage everyone to continue to conduct the necessary research to study the ways that games affect our lives as a cultural and iconic form of media in this day and age. It is clear that the role of digital media in today’s world is of critical import–from our politics to how we educate the next generation. With careful, neutral study, non-biased reporting, and a critical eye towards sensationalism, we believe we can better understand the impact games have in our lives, and that includes caring for those among us whose behaviors during play may become damaging. But, in order to provide the best possible care to those truly in need, and to not cause harm through mis- or overdiagnosis, we must not needlessly stigmatize gaming as a disorder. Singling out a specific form of digital media based on the limited evidence presented to date is unwarranted, and does not advance either the care and treatment options for those in need, or our greater understanding of the role and impact of this media in matters of society and culture.